Police

Armed Agents of the State Shouldn't Be Enforcing Traffic Laws

Interactions between the public and the police should be kept to a minimum.

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Police officers have difficult jobs, going up against murderers, rapists, muggers, thieves, and hardened traffic violators. 

Which of those groups doesn't belong? 

The question is especially relevant as protesters take to the streets over unaccountable, abusive policing. A majority of Americans now support police reform. And some of the most important reforms we could be enacting are changes that would simply reduce interactions between the public and armed agents of the state.

Cops pull over 20 million motorists a year—by far the most common form of police interactions with the American people. Those encounters occasionally end violently and tragically. Consider the cases of Darrius Stewart, Samuel DuBose, Philando Castile, and Maurice Gordon, all of whom were shot during routine traffic stops. Gordon was killed by a New Jersey state trooper just last month.

Those traffic stops often evolve into drug searches, which carry serious Fourth Amendment concerns. They also disproportionately impact black and Hispanic people. (Blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses and 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug possession, though whites use drugs at comparable rates.) Those with fewer means are more likely to be fined, arrested, and shuffled through the legal system, notwithstanding the fact that they're less able to afford getting trapped in that cycle.

In Colorado and Washington, where marijuana has been legalized, search rates at traffic stops have dramatically declined, a testament to how often those arbitrary searches are tied to drug laws that have no impact on traffic safety.

But even traffic safety doesn't necessarily need to be enforced by the police. "Don't use a hammer if you don't need to pound a nail," writes economist Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution. "The responsibility for handing out speeding tickets and citations should be handled by an unarmed agency. Put the safety patrol in bright yellow cars and have them carry a bit of extra gasoline and jumper cables to help stranded motorists as part of their job—make road safety nice."

It's a worthy idea. But it'll be tough to get state and local governments to accept it. Police departments, many of them furnished with weapons fit for a battlefield, often act as revenue raisers for the cities in which they serve.

"A Police Executive Research Forum report on St. Louis law enforcement found that local governments within the county were using police to 'plug revenue gaps' by running up the number of traffic citations, which coincided with many low-level arrests," writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. "As one St. Louis County resident told the report's authors: 'It's no secret that a lot of these municipal police officers are only supposed to be revenue drivers for their cities.'"

Relieving cops from traffic duty isn't the only way to reduce police encounters with the public. Eric Garner died at the hands of New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo after Garner was approached for selling loose cigarettes. A Louisville cop shot Breonna Taylor during a no-knock drug raid. Taylor was not a drug dealer, but had previously dated someone who had been suspected of using her address to receive packages. Nevertheless, her killing was not unlike that of Osama Bin Laden's. She was shot 8 times after police broke into her home.

We could minimize such encounters just by having fewer laws. "Things like the war on drugs, they've given police officers multiple reasons to be present in [minority] communities," Reason's Zuri Davis recently told the Washington Examiner's Siraj Hashmi. That "gives rise to a lot more interaction—and negative interaction." If we want fewer innocent people to die at police officers' hands, we need to cut back on the encounters that keep spiralling into such deaths.

NEXT: San Francisco Police Were Ordered To Turn Off Body Cameras in Raid on Journalist's Home

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  1. The responsibility for handing out speeding tickets and citations should be handled by an unarmed agency.

    SOFT ON CRIME.

    Fine, I agree as long as those touchy-feely social workers on wheels will be trained to smell marijuana and call in the big guns to search and detain the stoners.

    1. Actually, the opposite would happen as the safety patrol officers (who probably failed the police entrance exam) would still act like thugs to show the real cops that they’re badasses, too.

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    2. Traffic stops and domestic violence calls are the most dangerous activities police take. Police often find themselves dealing with violent felons during traffic stops. Heck, Steven Chapman actually argued that there should be fewer traffic stops because it’s so dangerous for the cops, do we really want meter maids doing traffic stops?

      1. The municipal terrorists bring it on themselves. They are the biggest criminal gang in the entire country. The name Blue Lies Mafia is well earned.

  2. When do cops go up against murderers, rapists, muggers and thieves? They solve, what, 17% of murders in Chicago? Tens of thousands of rape kits sit untested. Stolen property is rarely recovered. BTW Binion drugs were never sent to Breonna Taylor’s house that was a lie.

    1. Well, at least they file reports on such things to make it a little easier when dealing with insurance.

    2. Murders are nature’s way of culling the herd in the urban jungles of Chicago. It ensures a leaner, meaner, and more adaptable Chicagoan.

    3. So, aren’t you arguing that Chicago doesn’t have enough police to handle Chicago’s level of crime?

      I mean, London has 215 police per intentional homicide. Berlin has 187 police per intentional homicide. Chicago has 21 police per intentional homicide. You want criminals caught, it probably helps to scale your number of officers to the number of offenses.

      1. If you think having 10 times the police while solving 40% fewer murders is a success your standards are unreasonably low.

  3. But even traffic safety doesn’t necessarily need to be enforced by the police. “Don’t use a hammer if you don’t need to pound a nail,” writes economist Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution. “The responsibility for handing out speeding tickets and citations should be handled by an unarmed agency.

    Why “an unarmed agency” when you can mandate AI-based remote electronic surveillance of every car? Or is that what Alex is alluding to?

    1. Why stop at monitoring? Just have the AI set your optimum traveling speed.

    2. “… mandate AI-based remote electronic surveillance of every car?”

      The problem with that, of course, is that some judges have thrown similar technologies (cameras) out of court… citing the inability of the defendant to “question the witness,” so I am thinking that is not to what Alex is referring. Then again, I don’t read minds.

      1. What if the AI is able to answer witness questions?

        1. I guess that might change… but how would an AI swear an oath? 🙂

          1. I’m not too concerned, most people can’t pass the Turing test

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  4. Hmmm… maybe have cops on traffic duty keep their utility belt, with the pistol, etc., in the trunk? Brightly-colored cars are a good idea. Studies I have read seem to indicate that a highly visible police presence results in lower traffic speeds. But then, that would defeat their “fund-raising efforts,” no?

    1. Yeah, you know it’s getting towards the end of the month when the cops at the freeway emergency turn-arounds start hiding behind the trees with radar gun out instead of parking in plain sight with chair back and hat down.

      1. And just after the beginning of the month when they start lurking under highway bridges in U-turn lanes, looking for people with out of date registration/safety inspection stickers. I’ve personally seen one overzealous tax farmer actually jump in front of a moving car to induce the driver to stop. One of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen.

      2. That doesn’t happen where I live. In fact they don’t enforce traffic law at all around here.

  5. Change the name of traffic enforcement to Super Big Hugs Happytime Adventure doesn’t really fix anything. The problem is too many damn laws, including traffic laws. Deputizing meter maids to pass out tickets while also being witness to probable cause as they pass on information to actual cops is as laughably stupid as defunding the police.

    Can we get some actually competent to consider police reform who can at least consider how police department would abuse any reform?

    1. That’s a bingo! The cops aren’t the core problem. It’s all the damn laws. Many of which are unnecessary. Cops only enforce what’s there.

      The don’t write laws, or traffic codes.

  6. Violative stops are a cornerstone of American Criminal Justice how can we possibly rid ourselves of the agents? Won’t someone please think of the children.

    1. Especially the diaspora of immigrant children who are disproportionately affected by racist and sexist traffic stops.

      #AbolishICE
      #DefundRacism
      #ImmigrantsAreBeautiful
      #CHAZ

      1. seriously. “eleven people in a Monte Carlo” falls well short of probable cause.

  7. So you want to create a separate law enforcement agency for traffic? It forms not actually solve the incentive for local governments to use traffic enforcement as a revenue source.

    Keep in mind what happened in Atlanta was not merely a traffic infraction. He was blocking the Wendy’s drive thru, it was initially more a trespassing issue.

    1. (I’m just spouting off because I’ve read zilch about the actual details of the Atlanta thing)

      And the Wendy’s manager learned from his high school principal that the first thing you do in any situation is always call the cops. Never do something simple, like pound on the guy’s window and tell him to get his ass moving.

      1. They tried. The officers also tried. The dude was so hammered that he even went back to sleep after cops initially woke him.

      2. God you are a fcvkin idiot

        1. Meh, I had the same thought before finding out that the Wendy’s staff did in fact try to deal with him themselves first

    2. <blockquote.It forms not actually solve the incentive for local governments to use traffic enforcement as a revenue source.

      That’s not the problem this is intended to address. There are more than one problem with the police and their use here. No single solution will fix every problem – but you can take a swipe at some of the low-hanging fruit.

  8. Meter maids with better wheels?

  9. “Police officers have difficult jobs, going up against murderers, rapists, muggers, thieves, and hardened traffic violators. ”

    Because rapists, muggers and thieves never break traffic laws?

    There’s some overlap in that Venn diagram.

    1. They also own houses – but we don’t make the guy reading the gas meter a cop.

      1. I don’t know about you, but my meter reader works for a private utility.

    2. And limpers never lie.

  10. For years now I’ve been irritated by the people who turn every instance of police brutality into a reason to harp on systemic racism instead of addressing the actual problem. The problem being the myriad laws that put police into violent conflict with other citizens. I’ve always focused on the War on Drugs and other regulations that create victimless crimes (gun laws, knife laws, loose cigarette laws, etc.), but I’m adding this one to my list. Traffic violations in and of themselves are victimless crimes too. So, yeah I think this is a good idea. Most of the work could probably be done by cameras.

    Oh, but obviously the best solution would be to privatize all the roads.

    1. Traffic laws are victimless crimes until they cause an accident. I agree that if my failure to use a turn signal didn’t cause an accident I don’t need a citation, but if my failure to use a turn signal does cause an accident the fact that I was disobeying the law is what warrants me being on the hook for the damages done. So they should be done away with. They should be fine-less unless an accident occurs. Other traffic laws, excessive speeding or running a red light, can have such a high price if an accident does occur that they are closer to the random discharge of a weapon in a crowded area. They should be fined and monitored to discourage people from doing it.

      1. Jeezus, if we make illegal turns legal, we will have an infinite number more of them , and therefore a lot more accidents.

        It is no wonder Libertarians can’t win these L&O arguments, despite starting from the high ground. So many fvckin idiots who don’t understand the basic laws governing human behavior

        1. Jeezus, if we make illegal turns legal, we will have an infinite number more of them , and therefore a lot more accidents.

          Whoooooole lotta assumptions built into that sentence. Not a whole lot of evidence to support those assumptions.

        2. People have an incentive not to crash their cars. People don’t follow the traffic rules because they are afraid of the cops they are afraid of messing up a very expensive piece of equipment.

    2. For years now I’ve been irritated by the people who turn every instance of police brutality into a reason to harp on systemic racism instead of addressing the actual problem.

      I know! Capitalism!

    3. The myriad laws put cops in violent contact with violent people. 99.99999% of police interactions do not result in violence.

    4. The racial angle is overblown. The problem is absolutely the excessive number of needless laws, particularly drug laws which are used as a pretext for raids, searches, etc.

  11. Police departments, many of them furnished with weapons fit for a battlefield, often act as revenue raisers for the cities in which they serve.

    In most places that’s their primary job, and has been for quite some time.

    1. It couldn’t be because the leading cause of death for people under age 45 is MVAs, now, could it? In addition, unlike cancer and heart attacks, MVAs cause trillions in property damage. And unlike people who overeat or use drugs, it is likely somebody else pays the price for their stupidity.

      Explain how the NAP doesn’t apply to having traffic rules

      1. so of course the only solution is a police state. got it.

  12. Fun fact-I was pulled over back in 1994 or so for some unknown reason, and 6 cop cars showed up. A plainclothes officer approached and started screaming at me as they thoroughly searched the car and even my pack of cigarettes. Turns out they were filming an episode of COPS, but my incident didn’t make the cut, I guess because they didn’t find anything on me.

  13. Knowing they are unharmed in their clown cars would make some think about not bothering to stop.

    1. Feature, not a flaw.

    2. Soon you’ll need armed cops to escort the tow trucks you’d need to sweep all the unregistered, uninsured, untitled beaters off the streets. And the poor people who own them would be pissed off.

      If I don’t have to stop, I can just skip all that expense, and drive. Rules be damned.

  14. Goody. Let’s have an entire new government bureaucracy just to deal with traffic violations, with their own union, and regulation.

    1. Carjacking is not a traffic violation.

  15. “Interactions between the public and the police should be kept to a minimum.”

    Yes, and for those of us not in urban centers and without criminal inclinations traffic enforcement is our most likely police interaction. Every police interaction is an act of government oppression, whether petty or severe, and an exposure for police abuse.

  16. I’ll tell you guys a secret: there is almost no traffic enforcement in Nashville on weekends. Almost zero. Unless you are at a major sporting event or concert, you won’t see any cops dedicated to traffic at all. And the ones there are there for the pedestrians, like the ones on Broadway. And even then, they are just there to break up fights, not stop pedestrians from crossing in the middle of the street or against the lights, etc. They do not have the time or manpower to issue tickets.
    So it is kind of a Wild West atmosphere. You can do a Uturn just about anywhere you want to avoid traffic ahead. Lights are suggestions, in fact most are turned to either flashing yellow or flashing red (stop sign) after 11PM.

    And as a result, there are some real douchebags that thrive, including a group of bikers who like to race thru downtown.

    Well, one of them killed himself last week, and nearly killed me as well. I was stopped at a light and was rear ended at 70mph. He hit low, so his face squarely impacted the trunk. He was dead instantly. If he had come in higher, he midst have come thru the window and taken me out.

    I see some crazy shit every weekend. And lots and lots of death and maimed bodies. It is quite the contrast to the suburban town where I live, where they are looking for reasons to pull you over.

    1. Atlanta cops, notably at this moment, also don’t much care about traffic infractions unless they’re REALLY egregious. I’ve never been pulled over by APD, despite once driving with an expired plate for two months. I had cops behind me at stop signs who could easily see the tag was expired, but since the car wasn’t reported as stolen they didn’t waste their time with it.
      It’s the suburbs where cops are assholes about such things.

    2. Also… damn, dude, that’s intense. Hope you’re ok

    3. I’ll tell you another secret – I also live in an area with basically no traffic enforcement. Even during the day and all week long.

      People speed, drive drunk, etc. We make it work.

      1. It’s going to be so funny when a drunk driver kills you. I’ll send a flower arrangement to your family with with keep making it work as the inscription.

  17. So you are going to send the equivalent of a meter maid out to stop someone going 50 over at 3 a.m.?

  18. It’s revenue generation, nothing more or less, and it WILL stop.

  19. The write does realize that Tim McVeigh was arrested at a traffic stop right? If the stop had been conducted by an unarmed person he would have simply murdered them and fled. Officers are killed at traffic stops every year and they are armed. I would think many more would die if they were unarmed.

    In PA its already a bad situation since Troopers ride alone. It would only be made worse if they were alone and unarmed.

    Please stop acting like there aren’t bad people in the world. I think we have plenty of examples.

    1. I would think many more would die if they were unarmed

      why would you assume that? Would it not in fact be the opposite?
      An armed cop is a threat to your life if you plan to resist. An unarmed cop is not.

    2. “Please stop acting like there aren’t bad people in the world. I think we have plenty of examples.”
      Agreed. And most of them wear costumes and try to lord over everybody else for a power trip & a profit.

      I carry a gun in public always. Not because I’m afraid of “bad people” but because there are municipal terrorists out there that think the law doesn’t apply to them and that they can get away with anything. Take a job as a cop and then conduct yourself like your Oath of Office was some kind of joke… you get what you deserve. They aren’t dying fast enough.

  20. I completely agree with this. There is little reason for a licensed-to-kill agent of the state to be enforcing traffic laws.

  21. Driving is one of the few things in life that actually demonstrates the value of civilization. The rules are all basic common law rights of way. We all have powerful incentives to cooperate with our fellow drivers; liability, injury and even death. Our reward is the ability to go anywhere we please on a public roadway. I drive for a living and I observe this spontaneous, voluntary order in an otherwise chaotic world every day. 99% of the time agents of the state are not required to preserve order. As with all things there are a few bad actors who through negligence cause property damage and personal injury so there is a case for government intervention on rare occasions but for the most part they should have better things to do. Traffic enforcement is mostly a means to generate revenue and create opportunities to violate the 4th in enforcing the purportedly compelling state interest in the WOD all with the blessing of the federal courts. We don’t need a different kind of traffic cops. We need government that protects us from actual negligence and otherwise stays out of the fucking way.

    1. We need government that protects us from actual negligence and otherwise stays out of the fucking way.

      That kind of crazy libertarian thinking will NEVER get you any votes!

    2. Well said.
      Traffic laws are for commercial traffic. Transportation of passengers or freight for hire. All else is the BAR Associations revenue extortion racketeering.

  22. If states want to reform law enforcement in the traffic realm, maybe consider having fewer areas that need enforcement. I would suggest removing traffic signals from intersections that don’t need them. Maybe construct traffic circles or yield signs up where possible. If there are more places to be found in violation, the police will find violations.

  23. No agency of government isn’t needed to regulate moving and non-moving traffic enforcement. Automobile insurance companies are perfectly capable of assigning risk cost via premiums to unsafe drivers and ensuring that vehicles are properly titled to owners for theft evaluation purposes.

  24. No agency of government is needed to enforce both moving and nonmoving traffic regulation. Automobile insurance companies are perfectly capable of assigning the cost of risk to unsafe drivers via insurance premiums – and there is plenty of competition between companies to ensure that rates are reflective of cost.

    Additionally, the state is then deprived of revenue from speed traps.

    And insurance companies are more than capable of ensuring vehicles are properly titled to owners for evaluation of theft claims…

    1. No agency of government is needed to enforce both moving and nonmoving traffic regulation. Automobile insurance companies are perfectly capable of assigning the cost of risk to unsafe drivers via insurance premiums – and there is plenty of competition between companies to ensure that rates are reflective of cost.

      And without intrusive monitoring, how are insurance companies going to determine the risk?

      1. How do the police do it?

  25. Better be careful here or whoops, there goes the drug war.

  26. Traffic stops are big revenue generators for municipalities. They mostly needless and intrusive.

  27. Blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses and 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug possession, though whites use drugs at comparable rates.

    Whites have the good sense not to do drugs in their cars or on the street.

    1. My child would disagree. Now much older, he like to rattle my nerves to telling me of his encounters with police for marijuana use in high school. As a young white male he was usually told to turn over the weed and be careful on the way home.

      1. Probably because he was willing to blow the cops.

  28. I think it is reasonable to ask why a simple traffic stop requires an interaction with a police officer. There is no interaction with the meter reader in a parking violation. So with a simple infraction for vehicle speed or failure to obey a sign, have the officer require the driver to pull over. The officer photographs the license plate and electronically records a ticket to be sent to the vehicle owner. The officer then sends the vehicle a release signal and the person can driver off. The officer would limit interaction to cases where the driver is driving in a dangerous manner define by excessive speed or a lack of vehicle control.

    1. Where’s the asset-forfeiture looting in that? Hippies in Austin Texas always voted for Sheriff Raymond Frank. His concern was safety, and his deputies, when in doubt, routinely asked the wife or girlfriend to take the wheel. A lot of hepcats could not be relied on to drive home from Soap Creek Saloon correctly after six longnecks and two windowpanes. The natural tendency to drive 5 mph, however, obviated the matter of speeding tickets.

  29. “Blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses and 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug possession, though whites use drugs at comparable rates.”

    Do whites also sell and traffic drugs at comparable rates? That might have some kind of effect.

    Once again, you’re taking out all of the context other than race. I am white, and I was pulled over and was subjected to a car search because I was driving on a road that is “supposed” to be used by drug traffickers. If I’d been black, would I then be using that as an example of the unfair treatment black people get? I can’t say, but I will offer that maybe it’s the drug war that is the problem, not (again) racism.

    Given that more black individuals live in areas that are often economically depressed and that have drug dealers all over the place, it stands to reason that cops looking for drugs would search cars in the area where the drugs are. If that’s an area populated with a lot of black people, then black people are going to end up getting pulled over more. It’s not racism… it’s math.

    Why are you Reason people so insistent upon finding race in everything? That’s the Democrats’ job. If you want to know what yours is supposed to be, just look at the name of the site, and use some of that, not half-truth context-free statistics that are right out of the DNC talking points.

  30. If Public Safety and not revenue generation were the goal, then the DMV could enforce vehicle laws. But thieves need to be armed when conducting their trade to prevent victims from getting a better idea.

  31. Eliminating the ticket-but-don’t-arrest option would go a long way to fixing this. Police should only stop someone if they intend to make an arrest. This would be either because the person is driving in a way that threatens others on the road (reckless driving, apparent DUI) or if they think the vehicle is involved in a reported crime (the license plate shows it’s stolen, it matches the description of a getaway car, etc). Otherwise, if they don’t plan to take the driver down to the police station, they don’t pull him over.

    Yeah, that would put a serious crimp in government revenue. Cry me a river.

  32. The police have no lawful jurisdiction to be conducting “traffic stops” on anything but commercial transportation. It is very well established, not one single statute, code, ordinance or public policy, none which are law, applies to anything except commercial transportation for hire. None of it pertains to private travel. NONE!
    Any cop exceeding his jurisdiction in this way, has vacated his office, by violating his oath and is committing a felony.
    This article doesn’t give nearly enough credence to the criminal revenue extortion being perpetrated on the people of this supposedly “free country”. Not just by the municipal terrorists, but by their BAR Association handlers and the kangaroo, statutory courts that infest this country.
    Look into the FACT, that every case that is brought into a court, creates a financial bond in their system. Those bonds are bought/sold/traded on Wall Street.

  33. Media subsidized by the Nixon Anti-Libertarian Law or 1971 avoid mentioning police violence and substance prohibitionism within the same broadcast. Alcohol prohibition and The Great Depression are likewise not juxtaposed, but appeared side-by-side in newspapers published during Prohibition. Cop unions working the Waffen Bush faith-based asset-forfeiture “sharing” laws are as communistic a bunch of brigands as ever leapt out of the bushes to rob a stagecoach. They cause depositors to remove cash from banks, and cause credit crunches by confiscating cars.

  34. Some City or County should try it if they haven’t already and if not; maybe that’s were the story is… Why are all these separate sovereign areas so cookie-cutter designed and what forces are making it so.

  35. Mr. Binion’s excellent idea never purports that police may not have a reason to interact with specific motorists or perform a traffic stop.

    The concept looks promising, keeping in mind that police won’t be obliged to treat motorists like garlic crosses & sunlight but simply delegate the lion’s share of their customary control over to a normalizing, practical procedure.

    These new traffic patrollers could also act like agents of the state, in some cases; like you nor you; and report any suspicious persons who may have a carload of dynamite with coils, wire, and timing gage showing through the rear window, I’m sure you may realize.

    The first thought I had to the contrary should be covered by what I have stated hence. And that was that the police have a natural jurisdiction over the interstates and highways. But in no way would any rational person suppose that implementing a practical, money-saving plan to regulate traffic using private franchises would serve as legal immunity from a police-enforced traffic stop at some late date.

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